Articles | Volume 10, issue 11
Research article
10 Nov 2017
Research article |  | 10 Nov 2017

Systematic characterization and fluorescence threshold strategies for the wideband integrated bioaerosol sensor (WIBS) using size-resolved biological and interfering particles

Nicole J. Savage, Christine E. Krentz, Tobias Könemann, Taewon T. Han, Gediminas Mainelis, Christopher Pöhlker, and J. Alex Huffman

Abstract. Atmospheric particles of biological origin, also referred to as bioaerosols or primary biological aerosol particles (PBAP), are important to various human health and environmental systems. There has been a recent steep increase in the frequency of published studies utilizing commercial instrumentation based on ultraviolet laser/light-induced fluorescence (UV-LIF), such as the WIBS (wideband integrated bioaerosol sensor) or UV-APS (ultraviolet aerodynamic particle sizer), for bioaerosol detection both outdoors and in the built environment. Significant work over several decades supported the development of the general technologies, but efforts to systematically characterize the operation of new commercial sensors have remained lacking. Specifically, there have been gaps in the understanding of how different classes of biological and non-biological particles can influence the detection ability of LIF instrumentation. Here we present a systematic characterization of the WIBS-4A instrument using 69 types of aerosol materials, including a representative list of pollen, fungal spores, and bacteria as well as the most important groups of non-biological materials reported to exhibit interfering fluorescent properties. Broad separation can be seen between the biological and non-biological particles directly using the five WIBS output parameters and by taking advantage of the particle classification analysis introduced by Perring et al. (2015). We highlight the importance that particle size plays on observed fluorescence properties and thus in the Perring-style particle classification. We also discuss several particle analysis strategies, including the commonly used fluorescence threshold defined as the mean instrument background (forced trigger; FT) plus 3 standard deviations (σ) of the measurement. Changing the particle fluorescence threshold was shown to have a significant impact on fluorescence fraction and particle type classification. We conclude that raising the fluorescence threshold from FT + 3σ to FT + 9σ does little to reduce the relative fraction of biological material considered fluorescent but can significantly reduce the interference from mineral dust and other non-biological aerosols. We discuss examples of highly fluorescent interfering particles, such as brown carbon, diesel soot, and cotton fibers, and how these may impact WIBS analysis and data interpretation in various indoor and outdoor environments. The performance of the particle asymmetry factor (AF) reported by the instrument was assessed across particle types as a function of particle size, and comments on the reliability of this parameter are given. A comprehensive online supplement is provided, which includes size distributions broken down by fluorescent particle type for all 69 aerosol materials and comparing threshold strategies. Lastly, the study was designed to propose analysis strategies that may be useful to the broader community of UV-LIF instrumentation users in order to promote deeper discussions about how best to continue improving UV-LIF instrumentation and results.

Short summary
We present a comprehensive characterization of a commonly used commercial instrument (WIBS) for the real-time detection of fluorescent bioaerosols and suggest improved analysis and threshold strategies. Summaries of both biological and potential interfering, non-biological particles (70 aerosol types in total) are discussed in detail. The strategies we suggest will minimize interference from non-biological particles and will aid instrument users’ interpretation of ambient particle data.